A dream undone

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New York Times investigates NC voting rights

Sunday’s New York Times (NYT) Magazine focused with laser sharpness on what has happened to voting rights in North Carolina—and found us lacking. Where once we were lauded as progressive and inspiring, we now are portrayed in story after story as a state looking not forward, but backward. In an article titled “A Dream Undone,”* Jim Rutenberg, the magazine’s chief political correspondent, shows in exquisite detail and with considerable evidence how the Voting Rights Act, passed 50 years ago this month, is being eviscerated through a calculated campaign. I won’t try to summarize the careful analysis of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and how the “formula for Section 5 coverage contained in Section 4” was struck down by the Supreme Court in June 2013. That ruling led the N.C. legislature to pass a revised H.B. 589 in July 2013. According to Rutenberg, that legislation ended same-day registration and invalidated student identification cards for voting. It also shortened the early voting period by about half, “taking away one of the two Sundays when black churches run highly effective ‘souls to the polls’ campaigns.” The reason given for the changes is to prevent voter fraud, but the total number of cases uncovered so far in N.C. from the last election is 11, and none have resulted in charges of criminal fraud. So, what problem are we trying to fix?

We want every eligible American to vote

In my 11th grade civics class, we were educated about the importance of voting in a democracy. It may sound old-fashioned, but I bought it then, and I still buy it. We do have a say in our futures, and the collective voice defines our futures in four-year cycles. A work colleague told me that her parents had to get to the polls at 6 a.m., having driven 25 miles from the rural Virginia town in which they lived, and then they stood in line a good part of the day, waiting to vote. That’s an incredible level of dedication, commitment and belief in the value of their votes. These are the stories on which we should focus and not the few alleged cases of fraud.

In our family, we each looked forward to the first time we could vote, and nothing would have stopped us. (Family is one of the biggest predictors of voting, by the way.) I have never missed voting in a national election. When my mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer three years ago, one of her first thoughts was about how much she wanted to participate in the coming presidential election, and she feared not making it. Sunday, her closest friend told me that mother had begun to inquire whether she could vote early. She died too soon to cast her vote.

That powerful desire to exercise the right to vote is seen in country after country where women, blacks or any other group previously denied the right to vote finally is able to do so. People will wait hours and hours in long lines to vote. Yet, since 1968, an election I remember well, the proportion of the U.S. voting-age public that votes in presidential elections has remained at under 60 percent, sometimes well under that. One of the most striking outcomes of the Voting Rights Act is the large increase, since the act was passed, in the proportion of U.S. blacks who have voted in and won national elections. In 2008, there was little difference between rates of voting between blacks and whites. That’s a remarkable achievement in a world where there are so many racial disparities. As the NYT Magazine article points out, calculated legal strategies that became energized after President Obama won re-election are turning back the clock on 50 years of progress.

What I think

This shouldn’t be about politics. It should be about our democracy. We have a responsibility as citizens to vote. We should want every eligible American to be engaged in the process. Decades of research show a direct correlation between education, income and voting. The harder it is to register, become informed and travel to the polls, the more constrained the days and hours, the fewer people who will exercise their voting rights. It’s common sense and behavioral economics. Restricting voting options particularly harms low-income people. A person barely making it economically may not have a car to get to the polls, may not have paid leave or may not be able to obtain permission to leave work. When we end same-day registration, we reduce the time frame for voting, and therefore decrease that person’s options. Tell students they need to return to their home districts, and the numbers of students voting will decline dramatically. Why can’t they vote on campus, where their participation will reinforce the importance of voting and instill it as a habit? Encourage students to enjoy and feel proud of the physical act of voting, a solo experience in the midst of community.

I loved it when there was a long-enough window for early voting that I could walk across campus to exercise my right. I’d breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that no matter what happened after that, my vote was in. I would be counted. Now, I have to figure out whether I’ll be in town, whether I need an absentee ballot, whether I can get it in time, etc. And I’m a privileged person with lots of options. Making it harder to vote is mean-spirited—and it undermines our democracy. Undoing the dream and risking what we have gained in democracy over the past 50 years makes me realize that protecting the right to vote is more important than ever. I’m no political scientist, but I am a citizen. My tailor grandfather arrived in his new country by boat, speaking no English and having no possessions and almost no money. I won’t forget that. I won’t forget that he never had the right to vote in his rural Lithuanian village. And I’m not about to forget the people who will have to work harder to exercise their right in the present day. You shouldn’t, either.
Barbara

*In the NYT Magazine print edition, Rutenberg’s article was titled, “Overcome.” It is the first in a series examining the ongoing effort to roll back the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Follow Jim Rutenberg on twitter @jimrutenberg

 

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